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Four classic books

The Heidelberg Catechism

Zacharius Ursinus

Composed in 1563 by a German theologian and later adopted as one of the Three Forms of Unity by Dutch Reformed churches, the Heidelberg Catechism helped clarify Protestant beliefs. Today, some Christians still memorize this warmhearted catechism best known for its first question: “What is your only comfort in life and in death?” The answer in part: “That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ. … Without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head. … He also assures me of eternal life.”

I Have a Dream/Letter from Birmingham Jail

Martin Luther King Jr.

2018 marks the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s death. Readers exploring King’s core ideas may want to consider this roughly 60-page book. It includes his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech as well as his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” both from 1963. While the former soars with inspirational rhetoric, King’s letter powerfully defends his beliefs and practices (including “nonviolent resistance”) from the criticism of white clergy. Although the gospel basis for racial reconciliation is notably absent in both, King’s criticism of Jim Crow policies and his heartfelt reaction to their cruelty make the letter invaluable.


Whittaker Chambers

Chambers in the 1930s was a spy for the Soviet Union. After his conversion to “faith in God” he renounced Communism (“faith in man”) and escaped his Soviet handlers. In 1948, Chambers testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee, exposing several fellow spies. Foremost among those was former State Department official Alger Hiss, later found guilty of perjury. Part spy thriller, part political treatise, part literary autobiography, Chambers’ brilliantly written story exemplifies the Biblical call to love our enemies while seeking justice. His mid-20th-century political impact was great: William F. Buckley Jr. dubbed him “the most important American defector from Communism.”

The Complete Stories

Flannery O’Connor

O’Connor, a National Book Award (1972) winner, wrote more than 30 short stories that show the sinfulness of man and our need for God’s grace. She knew how to use sensational specific detail: This collection set in the “Christ-haunted” South includes shocking tales of backwoods violence, grotesque characters, and severe mercy. Stories like “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” “The Lame Shall Enter First,” and “Revelation” certainly invoke the pessimism shared by other 20th-century writers such as William Faulkner, yet O’Connor often shows God using our sin and suffering to teach us to number our days.

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Mere distortion

Co-opting C.S. Lewis, promoting evolution

The title and subtitle of Greg Cootsona’s Mere Science and Christian Faith: Bridging the Divide with Emerging Adults (IVP, 2018) suggests his two chief ways of selling Darwinism to Christians: C.S. Lewis (who should have trademarked “mere”) was for it, and evangelicals should make their peace with Darwinism for the sake of the children who will otherwise abandon the gospel.

We could ignore Cootsona’s poor writing except that he directs the program in Science and Theology for Emerging Adult Ministries (STEAM) at Fuller Theological Seminary, so his sales pitches are influential—but they’re also superficial, at best.

As John West wrote in The Magician’s Twin: C.S. Lewis on Science, Scientism, and Society (Discovery, 2012), Lewis saw the limitations of Darwinism: “It does not in itself explain the origin of organic life, nor of the variations.” Rather than thinking humans had evolved since Creation, Lewis emphasized devolution: Before the Fall, Adam had unimpeded fellowship with God (“God came first in his love and in his thought”) and complete control over animals (“He commanded all lower lives with which he came into contact”). Not anymore.

Lewis particularly insisted on original innocence followed by original sin—“I believe that Man has fallen from the state of innocence in which he was created: I therefore disbelieve in any theory which contradicts this.” In Miracles (1947), Lewis criticized those who “say that the story of the Fall in Genesis is not literal.” Lewis corresponded for 16 years with Bernard Acworth, a leader in Britain’s Evolution Protest Movement, and in 1951 wrote that Acworth’s work “has shaken me: not in my belief in evolution, which was of the vaguest and most intermittent kind, but in my belief that the question was wholly unimportant.”

Lewis at that point understood how evolution could be “the central and radical lie in the whole web of falsehood that now governs our lives.” That’s why Cootsona’s argument that church leaders should embrace macroevolution because otherwise kids will walk away from church is so wrong: Accepting evolution propels many toward unbelief. When we don’t try to turn them around, we are accomplices to surrender.

Christians increasingly can oppose atheism with not only faith but science, as Hugh Ross points out in The Creator and the Cosmos: How the Latest Scientific Discoveries Reveal God (RTB, 2018). Nevertheless, many scientists continue to put faith in evolutionary things unseen. Others see the problems but know what will happen if they think independently: Matti Leisola and Jonathan Witt show the professional consequences in Heretic: One Scientist’s Journey from Darwin to Design (Discovery, 2018).

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Books about the 1918 flu

Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus That Caused It 

Gina Kolata

New York Times reporter Gina Kolata approaches the 1918 flu pandemic, which killed tens of millions worldwide, through the eyes of scientists trying to discover what made it so virulent. The result is a medical detective story. Kolata zeros in on particular researchers and the lightbulb ideas that drive them. The search for clues leads to bodies buried in permafrost in Alaska and an almost forgotten medical archive in Washington, D.C. She takes the reader into the Oval Office as President Gerald Ford in 1976 orders a scientifically popular, nationwide program of swine flu inoculation—and shows how support for it rapidly craters.

The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History 

John M. Barry

Barry sets his history within the broader context of other trends, including the development of modern science and medicine and the consolidation of government powers during World War I. After extensive scene-setting he gets to the fall 1918 reappearance of the flu in its more virulent form. One notable thread in this broad story about experts responding to and mismanaging disaster: Ordinary citizens distrusted official pronouncements and press reports, and the result was widespread fear. Barry is a fine writer, although the book’s broad scope lessens its narrative punch.

Pale Horse, Pale Rider 

Katherine Anne Porter

This collection of three novellas by Porter, a Pulitzer Prize winner, shows how she uses specific detail to recreate a particular time and place. The title story comes from her own almost-fatal bout with flu. The main character—a female reporter in Denver—falls in love with a soldier headed to war. She gets sick and hovers between life and death, her dreams increasingly terror-filled. At one point she awakes and realizes she’s been screaming foul insults at her German doctor. Through that kind of detail, Porter conveys the horror of the flu and the tenor of the times.

As Bright as Heaven 

Susan Meissner

In this novel, Thomas and Pauline Bright move to Philadelphia after their infant son dies. Thomas joins his uncle as an undertaker, but the 1918 flu hits the city, throwing it and the family in crisis. Meissner’s decision to use an undertaker’s family lets her depict the scale of the epidemic as bodies piled up outside. Four female characters narrate events, trying to make sense of the epidemic, the war, and women’s changing roles. At the end of the book, one of the daughters muses: “We are all doing the best we can with what life hands us. That’s all we’ve ever been able to do.”

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